Eric Zemmour enjoyed a propitious weekend as he embarked on his first official overseas visit as a presidential candidate. It began with the endorsement of Philippe de Villiers, an influential businessman and political commentator (and the brother of Pierre, the chief of the defence staff who quit in 2017 after falling out with Emmanuel Macron).
De Villiers appeals to the more sophisticated senior conservative voter and he has carved out a reputation for himself in recent years as a pungent critic of Islam; among his oeuvre is the best-selling book, Will the church bells still ring tomorrow?. In explaining why he has thrown his support behind Zemmour, de Villiers said that he is the ‘only candidate with the judgment and courage to talk about civilisation.’ The pair’s common enemy is Islam and de Villiers believes that European civilisation ‘is in peril’. He added: ‘I have the impression that my country is going to die and I don't want that.’
Presenting a unified front, de Villiers and Zemmour flew to Armenia to attend a ceremony for the victims of the 1915 genocide when the Ottoman Empire was responsible for the deaths of an estimated two million people. ‘One must visit such places to understand the origins of our civilisation,’ said Zemmour.
At the same time that Zemmour was in Armenia news emerged in France of an incident last Wednesday in Nanterre, just west of Paris. Accoding to Le Figaro 30 Catholic worshippers were surrounded by a mob as they took part in a torchlight procession to celebrate the Immaculate Conception. Insults were hurled, the Catholics were reportedly told ‘this is Allah's territory’ and there were threats to ‘slit your throats in the name of the Koran’.
Zemmour responded to the news with a tweet which warned that ‘Christians from the East to the West are in grave danger.’ There was also a declaration from the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, in which he expressed his outrage, and with good reason. The most recent government figures revealed that in 2019 there were 1,052 incidents in France classified as anti-Christian, compared to 657 anti-Semitic and 154 anti-Muslim incidents.
Under previous governments such figures have elicited little comment. Indeed, they may not have under this administration but for the emergence of Zemmour. In this election Macron and the centre-right Republicans know they can no longer ignore Islamic extremism.
Islamism is a major pre-occupation for the electorate as a survey in a Sunday newspaper demonstrated this weekend. Canvassing the views of the 18-30 demographic, the paper revealed that the fight against Islamic terrorism was their third ‘priority’ (62 per cent) behind health and education.
This in part explains the collapse in the last decade of the French left whose pathological refusal to address Islamic extremism has turned their voters towards those politicians who will.
Asked about their voting intentions, the 18-30s were most favourable to Macron (25 per cent), Marine Le Pen (20 per cent) and then Zemmour (12 per cent). The most popular left-wing politician was Jean-Luc Mélenchon (11 per cent) while the Socialists’ presidential candidate, Anne Hidalgo – who in an address on Sunday likened the situation of Muslims in France in 2021 to that of the Jews in Europe in the 1930s – languishes on a modest 5 per cent.
Say what you will about Macron, while he has behaved childishly about the fishing dispute, on the question of Islamism he has acted with a resolution that has been in stark contrast to the pusillanimity of Britain’s political class.
He has shown himself unafraid of upsetting the Muslim world in defending western values of tolerance and freedom of expression, as he has in angering French Islamists by shutting down extremist mosques. Twenty-two mosques have been closed by his administration since the start of 2020 after being accused of preaching a dogma antithetical to Republican values, and nearly 700 clubs and associations that were found upon investigation to be pushing an Islamist agenda under the cover of a football team or a book club have been shut down.
In addition, €46 million (£40 million) that would have been used to fund Islamist soft-power projects in France has been seized by the state, as part of what the government calls its ‘Al Capone strategy’.
Most significantly of all, for the first time since 2014 there have been no major Islamist terror attacks in France this year. The murder of a policewoman in Rambouillet in April has been the only fatality, and the news last week that police had arrested two men allegedly plotting to attack shoppers at a Christmas market was a further boon to the government.
The security forces could go a long way in ensuring Macron wins a second term. If their hard work and diligence continues in 2022 and they foil other Islamist attacks it will negate much of Zemmour’s narrative about a clash of civilisations. But the Islamists need to get lucky only once, and as France saw last year with the murder of the schoolteacher Samuel Paty how do you stop a fanatic who on a whim decides to wage jihad?
Five years ago the Islamists wanted Le Pen to become president because they believed her victory would hasten the civil war that is their ultimate objective. This time around they are pinning their hopes on Zemmour to provoke their clash of civilisations.